Lesbian. Heterosexual. Transgender. Bisexual. Gay. Questioning. Asexual. Queer.
Language is foundational to any conversation, and for the queer community, it is a double-edged sword. Language choice is frequently a source of contention, but it’s also the power behind our ability to educate the community about queer issues. I argue that language is often used to the detriment of the queer community. To avoid causing harm with this column, I feel compelled to clarify the word “queer.” I use the term as one of empowerment; it encompasses all identities sometimes cumbersomely described by LGBT-related acronyms. “Queer,” as I use it, is free from any externally applied derogatory connotations.
An obvious indicator of language’s impact is the effect of hate speech (or, ideally, lack thereof) on campus. Luckily, UT seems to be doing well on this front — with room for improvement. The University launched the Campus Climate Response Team in March 2012 as part of a “positive push to acknowledge that we want a university campus that is inclusive and welcoming of all communities,” said team member Katherine Antwi Green. The CCRT represents an effort on behalf of the University to combat hate speech directly, and it seems to be meeting success. According to the Princeton Review, UT scores decently on the campus LGBT-friendliness scale, especially in comparison to other Texas universities. That’s something to take pride in.
But overtly hateful speech is hardly the only way language can marginalize queer people on campus. Faculty and staff in particular often make comments that come across as insensitive without actually breaking any rules. For example, the use of the word “transgendered,” while technically correct in some academic fields, is widely considered disrespectful by some. A better approach is to remember that transgender reflects an identity, not an action. The term “transgendered” is as inaccurate as referring to a person as having “gayed” or “lesbianed.”
Unfortunately, not all institutions on campus have successfully accommodated the language of identity, including this newspaper. Shane Whalley, Education Coordinator for the Gender and Sexuality Center, has spoken to the Texan several times in the past five years but faced inconsistent pronoun usage. Whalley, whose pronouns are the gender-neutral ze/hir/hirs, is rarely quoted as such. The usual justification is that the Texan meets AP style guidelines, which aren’t apparently progressive when it comes to pronouns. As a result, queer identity on campus can be marginalized by the media even in efforts to raise awareness.
Another telling example of seemingly innocuous language about the queer community centers around the recent push for so-called Competitive Insurance Benefits. Formerly called Domestic Partner Benefits, this initiative would provide the partners of queer faculty the same amenities as their heterosexual counterparts. The new name came about due to fear that conservative higher-ups would shy away from expenditures benefiting domestic partners. The new name instead appeals to the Texas constitutional requirement of keeping the University competitive, broadly defined.
My utilitarian instinct is highly supportive of the renaming. The insurance benefits, if passed, will in fact help the University maintain a high level of competitiveness, in addition to being in the best interest of equality. What’s problematic, though, is that the renaming itself is indicative of a larger problem: queer people on this campus must resort to either covert or assimilationist approaches in order to have their problems addressed. Queer faculty have cause for concern when the only way their domestic partners can receive benefits is if they are erased from the official language and public consciousness.
Last month, a man assaulted two gay men downtown. One of them lost eight teeth and required fifteen stitches. This Saturday, GetEQUAL Texas rallied against hate at the Capitol in response. Ten days earlier, the City of Austin pledged its support for same-sex marriage, a stance diametrically opposed to a 2005 amendment to the Texas Constitution, which bans both same-sex marriage and “any legal status identical or similar to marriage.”
So where exactly do we stand at the University? I certainly can’t claim to speak for the entire campus queer community (and Whalley does not either), but the general consensus seems to be that UT does a good job of fostering a safe campus climate. Though a laudable achievement, it is only a preliminary step toward the ultimate goal of promoting a fully inclusive environment. For now, queer people tend to feel like they’ve received a formal invitation to the “You belong on campus!” party, but a slight improvement to campus-wide tone could help us feel genuinely welcome and ready to dance.
Walters is a Plan II junior from Houston.